Like other HIV-1 (human immunodeficiency virus type 1) proteins, Tat undergoes rapid mutation and occurs in numerous sequence variants in nature. Virus isolated from patients often has defects in Tat that lower its activity. The levels of P-TEFb, an essential cellular cofactor for Tat, are elevated by T-cell activation. To test the hypothesis that stimulation of P-TEFb levels might compensate for attenuation of Tat activity, we generated Tat constructs with a range of transactivation function. Transactivation by the Tat mutants correlated with their ability to bind to P-TEFb in vitro. Treatment of U937 cells with the phorbol ester PMA (phorbol myristate acetate) induced P-TEFb and stimulated Tat transactivation for alleles with basal transcription activity above a threshold (>5% compared to wild-type). Highly active alleles (>66% of wild-type) were stimulated to a lesser extent than those with activity in the intermediate range. Thus, attenuation of Tat function, in concert with low levels of P-TEFb activity, could serve to keep the virus in a latent state in quiescent cells yet permit viral replication after cell activation.
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